There was once a king from a cowardly line. He was a greedy king and did not serve his subjects. Once he was walking past a still pond when a voice asked him what he wanted in the world. "Riches" he said and the voice laughed and told him to reach into the pool. When he did, a strong arm grabbed him and pulled him under the water. He flailed around until his arms found a chest of great weight. "This is yours, " said the voice, "but in return I want that which you do not yet know." The King grabbed the chest and swam to the surface. Opening it, he beheld rubies, emeralds, diamonds and other jewels of great value.
The King returned to his palace and the Queen ran to him and told him that she was bearing a son. The King went white and swooned to the floor. When he came to, he called for his chamberlain and explained his problem. After some thought, the chamberlain said to find a couple that were expecting and to switch the babies when they were born, that way he could give up another person's baby when the time came. So they waited until the Queen went into labour and produced a son. That night, the chamberlain and the nurse took the baby and went into the forest where they knew that a woodcutter's wife had given birth to a son, They entered the hut and asked to see the child. The chamberlain explained to the couple that they had brought a present for the new-born, but as he spoke to them the nurse swapped the two babies, wrapping the Prince in rough cloth. The chamberlain came in and told her to hurry up and speak to the couple. After she had gone, he tutted at her hesitancy and exchanged the babies, wrapping the Prince in soft linen.
Many years afterwards, the two babies had grown up into youths. The King paid little attention to his own son, but often visited the woodcutter's son in the forest and showered him with gifts and favours. The Prince grew even more slovenly, greedy and cowardly than his father, continually indulging in the affairs of the flesh, eating and drinking to excess. The woodcutter's son grew tall and handsome, fair of face and of deed. The King loved him as his son, and had forgotten about his agreement until the boys came of age. He was walking past a still pool and saw a strange movement on the water and heard the Voice demand his son as payment for his previous favour. Trembling with fear, the King ran to the Palace and told his chamberlain what had happened. That cunning man took the Prince for a picnic in the forest and laid sweetmeats and fruits on a rug. As they sat beside the still pool and ate, the Prince cried out that he was thirsty and wanted some wine. "Alas, I have forgotten the wine," said the chamberlain, "go to the pool and take a drink." Complaining bitterly, the Prince stood up and waddled over to the pool, bending down to take a drink. The chamberlain ran behind him and pushed him into the water.
The Prince fell through the water and landed on a soft forest floor. He looked around in astonishment and saw a bird sitting in the branches. "Who are you?" said the bird. "I am a Prince, come to visit." said the Prince, to which the bird vanished in a rain of feathers. The Prince cried out in fear and ran through the forest until he came into a clearing where he saw a woman no taller than his knee. "Hello, young Prince," said the woman," if you want to marry the Forest King's Daughter you must travel to his Palace under the Hill. Take this carrot and this jar of honey, for they will help you in your journey." He snatched the gifts and left, walking along the forest trails until he became tired. Suddenly, an ass came walking to him and asked for the carrot in return for helping him. The Prince clambered onto its back and dug his heels into the ass' sides. As the ass ran through the forest, the Prince ate the carrot. When it stopped, he jumped down and showed his empty hands and laughed before shooing the ass away. He walked for a little longer and reached a river. On the other side was a ferry manned by two bears. They offered to take him across the river in return for the jar of honey that he held. He agreed and they brought the ferry to him and he jumped aboard. As they pulled the ferry across the river, he sat and ate the honey. Upon reaching the other side, he leapt to the sure and flung the empty jar into the water, running to the hill where a tunnel ran to the Forest King's Palace.
Meanwhile, the greedy King ran to the woodcutter's son and embraced him as his own son, stating that he was the new heir to his kingdom. He sat the youth on his right hand and dressed him in finery and jewels. "Where is the Prince?" asked the woodcutter's son. "He has gone to the still pool to visit the Forest King," said the King, "but he is not my son, I exchanged you at birth and he has taken your place." With that, the woodcutter's son leapt to his feet and ran to the still pool, leaping in head first, for none should take his place into danger.
He fell and landed in a forest. He walked until he reached a clearing where he saw a woman no taller than his knee, who said to him "Hello, young Prince, if you want to marry the Forest King's Daughter you must travel to his Palace under the Hill. Take this carrot and this jar of honey, for they will help you in your journey." The woodcutter's son thanked her and left on his journey. He grew tired and met the ass who offered to take him on part of his journey. When the ass stopped, the woodcutter's son gave it the carrot and thanked it for its help. He walked a little longer and came to a river and accepted the bear's offer for help. As he stood on the ferry, he put the jar of honey down and helped them pull the ferry across the river. As they reached the far bank, he gave the bears the honey and thanked them for their help. He then ran to the tunnel that ran under the Hill.
Meanwhile, the Prince had entered the Dark Tunnel, but the carrot he had eaten allowed him to see as if he walked through daylight and he saw the Demons, snakes, beasts and horrors of the Underworld. Terrified, he ran as fats as he could, reaching the Palace under the Hill in a trembling state of fear. He was met by the Forest King and his guards who asked him who he was. "I am a Prince, come to claim your daughter." he said. "Good," said the Forest King, "she is as beautiful as I am." At this, the Prince turned pale for he had never seen anyone as hideous as the Forest King. The Prince spoke of himself so eloquently that people thought he was a poet, it was as if honey was dripping from his tongue. Persuaded by his words, the Forest King agreed to let him marry his daughter if he could pass her test.
The Princess, however, had seen him in the guise of a bird, and did not like what she saw. "He is fat, greasy and ugly," she told her nurse, "and he smells like a dog. I will not have him." "But you must if your father wills it." replied the nurse. "Very well," she said, "but he will not find it easy." She turned herself into a bird as before, then the birds became two, then four then six and flew to the Prince in a brilliant shimmering flock. Together, the identical birds said "He who chooses me may have me." The Prince looked in amazement and could not choose between them. In desperation, he pointed to one which vanished. He pointed to another and another and another, but all vanished. When there were only two, the Forest King warned him that if he chose wrongly again his life would be forfeit. He chose quickly and the bird vanished, leaving the Princess alone. The Forest King called for his Axeman who forced the blubbering Prince to his knees and raised his Copper Axe.
Meanwhile, the woodcutter's son reached the tunnel and walked through it. The darkness pressed in on him, but he was not afraid of the darkness and walked forward with courage, unaware of the horrors that surrounded him. He entered the throne room as the Axe was about to fall. "Stop," he cried, "I am the Prince, leave him, he is a woodcutter's son." The Princess saw him and fell in love with him, asking her father to give him a chance if he could pass her test. The Princess turned into six birds as before and flew to the woodcutter's son, crying "He who chooses me may have me." The woodcutter's son looked at into the birds' eyes and saw love shining back from one and chose her. Immediately, the other birds vanished and the Princess resumed her own form in front of him. She said that he had passed the test and that they should be married and she would return with him to his own world.
The Forest King was appalled by this and looked as though he would faint. The Prince spoke up and said that the woodcutter's son could not marry the Princess as he was base born and that she should marry him instead. His honeyed words worked well on the Forest King and he agreed, locking the woodcutter's son in a room until the morning. The Princess turned herself into a mouse, ran through a hole in the wall and embraced the woodcutter's son. She spoke some words and they turned into two birds and flew through the chimney and through the Dark Tunnel, alighting at the edge of the forest where they resumed their normal form and ran through the forest.
The Forest King discovered their flight and sounded his great horn, sending the Prince and his guards and dogs out to the chase. The host were on horseback and quickly gained on the couple, almost catching them at the river, but the bears saw them coming and took them across on the ferry. When the Prince saw them he demanded they ferry him across but they refused. In a rage, he dismounted and swam the river, followed by the guards, but half were lost fighting the serpents of the river. They ran after the couple who soon became tired, but the Ass came to them and took them on its back. They reached the clearing beneath the pool and were about to climb up when the Prince ran into the clearing. He had outran the guards who could not see very well in the darkness and was so out of breath that he panted before them. "You are fat, ugly, you smell like a dog and pant like one" said the Princess and turned him into a great hunting dog that gave a bark and leapt past them up to the pool. As he jumped out of the water he saw the chamberlain and set upon him savagely, but was fought off by the Royal guards. The woodcutter's son and Princess climbed out of the pool and he asked her to change the Prince back to his normal shape. Immediately, the Prince challenged the chamberlain as to what he had done and the chamberlain told the truth and brought the nurse as a witness, but she admitted that she switched the babies, so everyone knew that the Prince was actually the King's son. The King fell to the floor in a faint as he recognised his son was a selfish glutton.
The woodcutter's son and the Princess were married and lived in the Forest. When the King died, the Prince became King, but the woodcutter's son took the Copper Axe given to him as a wedding present from the Forest King and travelled to the palace. "Look, I have brought a gift that was yours before but that I took from you" he said. Thinking he meant the Princess, the Prince jumped down and took his hand in gratitude, but the woodcutter's son swung the Axe and became King himself, after all he had been made heir by the old King. He was a good king and a fair one and reigned for many years before returning to the Palace under the Hill with his wife.
1. This is based loosely on a Russian Fairy Tale that I can't remember the name of.